Twice a month we've got kid-centric book reviews from Nancy Gilson, the Dispatch's features editor for the arts. She finds what's new in the children's and teen section of the library, and tells us what's worth bringing home for your young reader.
"Keeper" (Atheneum, 399 pages, $16.99, ages 8 to 12)
With her 2008 debut novel, The Underneath, Kathi Appelt wove a story of animal friends in a Louisiana bayou, proving to be a master at blending reality and fantasy for young readers.
She lays further claim to the territory with Keeper, a new children's novel that's every bit as captivating and distinctive as her first.
The setting is a tiny Texas community along Oyster Ridge Road on the Gulf of Mexico. The title character is a 10-year-old girl who lives with Signe, her young guardian. Keeper's real mother, who took off seven years ago, is a mermaid.
Her extended family includes her dog, BD ("Best Dog"); the shellshocked Dogie, a Persian Gulf War veteran who runs a surf shop; the ancient Mr. Beauchamp, who carves sea charms for Keeper and tells her sea legends; and Captain, a sea gull nursed back to health by Signe and BD.
The drama begins when Keeper, convinced that she has heard their pleas for help, releases crabs intended for Signe's gumbo back to the ocean. That sets off a chain of unfortunate events that prompts the girl to embark in her small boat to find and have counsel with her mother, the mermaid. Far out to sea, Keeper, BD and their little boat suffer the violence of a sudden storm.
Appelt shifts back and forth in perspective, telling the various threads of the tale through the appropriate characters.
Each character holds mystery and inner pain, fragments that are revealed in chapters that function as short stories and ultimately merge into a unified whole.
Appelt makes no apologies for blending the real and the imaginary. Her satisfactory ending unifies the authentic domestic drama of characters in search of family with bits from Mr. Beauchamp's sea tales.
In light of the disaster befalling the Gulf Coast, the tale becomes even more bittersweet in its depiction of such a beautiful, fragile part of the world.
-- Nancy Gilson, firstname.lastname@example.org